As the Sumerian Dynasty wained and eventually assimilated with the Akkadians, a city-state called Babylon began its rise to power. Babylon became significant under the rule of its sixth king, Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792-1750 BCE. Hammurabi is probably best remembered from middle school history class for his system of laws, the Code of Hammurabi. It was this set of laws that gave us rules like “an eye for an eye” and “if someone cuts down a tree on someone else’s land, he will pay for it.” The Code of Hammurabi is the one of the oldest deciphered writings and has been used as a model for modern law around the world. Hammurabi is even depicted within the U.S. Capitol Building and the U.S. Supreme Court Building as one of the world’s great lawgivers.
Now, it needs to be mentioned that brewing in the ancient world was considered a feminine task. Even commercial brewing in major Sumerian cities like Godin Tepe and Ur, was done by women. The Babylonians continued the practice as evidenced in Hammurabi’s Code. Beer is directly discussed in three separate laws within the code:
If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.
If conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.
If a “sister of a god” open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.
The presence of beer in the culture was so significant that laws from 1750 BCE directly reference its sale and service. Regulation of beer was important to the Babylonians, not just because they drank it themselves, but because they also exported it. The Babylonians regularly traded beer with Egypt (source).
The Egyptians used beer as compensation for work, offering workers three rations of it daily. It is said, somewhat truthfully and somewhat anecdotally, that beer built the pyramids as workers on the Giza plateau were almost certainly paid in beer. It was also used medicinally to treat upwards of a 100 different ailments. Beer was so immensely popular throughout Egypt that perhaps the most despised of Cleopatra’s actions during her reign was the first ever institution of a beer tax (source).
Beer seems to have migrated to Greece and Italy from Mesopotamian roots but brewing was also developed independently early on in Europe. Historian Merryn Dineley found traces of beer brewing equipment on Scotland’s Orkney Islands in a settlement named Skara Brae that dates back to the Neolithic era, roughly 5,000 years ago. The artifacts discovered, while demonstrative of a brewing culture, are not likely to have been a brewery or pub but simply a location where brewing took place, probably on a domestic scale (source).
The Greeks and Romans preferred wine to beer and considered beer to be the drink of barbarians. The Romans discovered when they first ventured into modern day Germany, during the first century BCE, that the Germanic tribes also drank a malt-based fermented beverage, just like the drink that made its way from Mesopotamia. A Roman historian, Tacitus, claimed “To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine (source).” The Romans were a literate society and looked down upon the Germanic peoples who often brewed with a variety of ingredients that included: oak bark, aspen leaves, and even bovine gall bladders. It is easy to see why the wine-swilling Romans did not like these “barbarians.”
Brimming with contradiction, we know that the Roman armies enjoyed a good brew as in 1983 an ancient brewery was discovered at the encampment called Casta Regina in Regensburg, Germany. The site was built by Marcus Aurelius in 179 BCE (source).
Earlier, in 1935, archaeologists unearthed a Celtic burial mound outside Kasendorf, Germany and found an earthenware amphora that contained the remnants of beer from 800 BCE! Even more specifically, it was determined that the concoction was a black wheat ale flavored with oak leaves according to the German Beer Institute (source). That is the oldest known evidence of brewing in Europe and perfectly demonstrates the reaches of early brewing.
Originating in Mesopotamia but also created in the British Isles, beer spread over continents and through civilizations to meet in Germany, the home of modern beer as we know it!
Next week, I’ll trace the European origins of beer up through the beginning of beer in America.